Women in technology share experience in rising to the top

Image credit: Hillebrand Steve

Women overall are poorly represented in higher professional positions. However, they are better represented in some top fields like politics, civil service, and law than in technology and engineering. Women scientists especially in the later stage of their career are less likely to attain a distinguished professional position than their male colleagues.

This can be due to family pressure and personal choice, or to a cultural bias of science and technology as a male profession.

Jeanine Long, Head of MIS operations at Thomson Reuters, said, “Women take breaks off work mainly because they are caretakers of children and older parents”.

If these women do not keep on top of developments in their field while they’re away, it can be difficult for them to fit into their role when they resume work.

In most cases, it is women that go on parental leave and not men, Long noted. “Most men have their partners take care of things while most women do not really have”.

A 1999 report on women faculty in science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology found there was an unequal distribution of resources between male and female faculty in every variable that was measured: in lab space, salaries, proportion of university funding, and nominations for prizes. That marginalization experienced by female faculty members is one of the visible impacts of bias against women in science.

To attain high ranks, women in science must overcome these barriers, but it can be done. Women can assist themselves by networking – keeping in touch with other women in their profession and not isolating themselves. “Men see networking as part of their career while most women see it as something they do after work or outside their job,” Long says.

In addition, women could benefit from being more comfortable talking openly about their achievements.  Farrow Louise, Lifecycle Maintenance & Support  consultant at Royal Bank of Scotland, said, “One thing I learnt in taking my second degree in the USA was to sell myself, which is not very British.”

Zoe Cunningham, Operations Manager at Softwire Technology, agreed. “Women need to believe more in themselves and make others believe them,” she said. “Basically everything is possible; anything that has been done before, you can do it.”

To hear more from Long, Farrow and Cunningham about their career experiences, listen to the audio clips below.

Gender inequality in science

Image credit flickr

Gender inequality has been one of the barriers making it difficult to retain women in science, technology, engineering and maths. Several studies have shown the existence of gender inequality in sciences.

According to a study by Steffens, Melanie C (2010), On the leaky math pipeline, published by American Psychological Association, implicit gender stereotypes are an important factor in the dropout of female students from math-intensive fields.

Another study by Jacobs, J. E. and Simpkins, S. D. (2005), Mapping leaks in the math, science, and technology pipeline, also suggested that girls are more likely to drop out of mathematics and related courses and less likely to aspire for a career in sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) than boys after primary school.

I interviewed Andresse St Rose, who is a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and a co-author of Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics on what gender inequality in science entails and how an end can be put to it.

When we talk about gender inequality in science, what do we mean?

Inequality incorporates a number of different concepts, including the underrepresentation of women and girls  in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields especially in computer science and engineering in the US. Additionally, women are underrepresented at the highest ranks of faculty in fields like biology where women now earn the majority of bachelor’s and master’s degrees and half of the doctoral degrees awarded. Although some argue that women are less interested than men in certain STEM fields and that gender gaps in participation are due to personal choices; there is evidence that bias and discrimination play a role in shaping women’s experiences in STEM.

Why do we still have disparity in equality in science?

AAUW’s research shows that social and environmental factors contribute to the underrepresentation
of women in science and engineering.  These include societal beliefs about science being a “male domain”,  negative gender stereotypes about female ability in math, erroneous beliefs about innate abilities, the culture and climate of STEM departments at universities that can still be “chilly” for women, and gender bias that continues to limit women’s progress in STEM.

What steps have been taken to ensure there is equality for women in science?

Change needs to happen at multiple levels of education, government and society to ensure gender equity in STEM. There is a federal law – Title IX – that prohibits gender discrimination in education and applies to all programmes that receive federal funds.

Many colleges and universities have taken action to increase the number of women and underrepresented minority students who study and earn degrees in STEM.

Colleges and universities have also made changes to improve the climate for female faculty in STEM by integrating early career female faculty better into the departments through mentoring, and by instituting and promoting policies that support better work-life balance, which is important to women who are often pursuing careers and the bulk of household/caregiving responsibilities in families.

And even at lower levels of education there are efforts to introduce more girls to science in and out of school by exposing them to successful female role models, and promoting hands-on activities to build confidence and interest.

Are there policies to ensure equality in science? If so what have they been able to achieve?

In the US, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. The law states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance” (20 U.S. Code § 1681).

Title IX covers nearly all colleges and universities. To ensure compliance with the law, Title IX regulations require institutions that receive any form of federal education funding to evaluate their current policies and practices and adopt and publish grievance procedures and a policy against sex discrimination.

When Congress enacted Title IX, the law was intended to help women achieve equal access to all aspects of education at all levels. During the last 40 years, however, Title IX has been applied mostly to sports.
A US government report in 2004 examining the effect of Title IX in STEM disciplines found that federal agencies need to do more to ensure that colleges and universities receiving federal funds comply with Title IX.

In response to these findings, federal agencies, including NASA and the Department of Energy in conjunction with the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, have begun to conduct Title IX compliance reviews more regularly .


Girls are smarter than boys

Are girls really smarter than boys? This is one of many questions I asked myself after seeing the wonderful info graphics by folks in engineeringdegree.net. Engineering Degree.net is committed to assist aspiring and current engineers in their career.

Studies have shown the number of women in science and technology is growing but still outnumbered by the number of men in field.

According to the study carried by American Association of University, at the elementary stage  boys and girls  have roughly equal number in taking science courses but at college women are less likely than men to major in science, technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

The info graphics below delved more into how girls are smarter than boys in STEM subjects but do not get to pursue a career in the field.

Image courtesy of engineeringdegree.net

Developing countries: Kenya Strengthens Women’s Research Skills

Image by Mckay Savage

Kenya is one of the African countries that has been committed to supporting women research and leadership skills.

Recently, the National Council for Science and Technology (NCST) made available a  third round of funds and called on women to take advantage of the research funding of US$33,900 for a period not exceeding two years.

According to NCST secretary, Shaukat Abulrazak, it is an “additional strategy to enhance women’s participation in science, technology and innovation”.

Abulrazak said there are other programmes like Research and Innovations grants, Post-Doctoral research grants and Postgraduate research grants, where women are also beneficiaries.

The NCST is committed to “gender mainstreaming in all its programmes and ensures that in the award of these grants, women get at least 30%,” he said.

Studies have shown that by strengthening the research skills of women in science, it will help to enhance their contribution to poverty alleviation and food security.

The support of Kenya to women’s participation in science was also seen in the 2010 award for African women in Agriculture Research and Development, where 11 out of 60 women agricultural scientists were Kenyans.

“This will also debunk the myth that qualified African women researchers aren’t there-an excuse that’s often used to justify why women are not hired or promoted equitably within  research institutions, universities and corporations” said Vicki Wilde, Director of Gender and Diversity programme in Narobi, Kenya during the 2010 Agriculture Research and Development Award project.

African countries still have much to do in empowering and supporting their women’s research skills. To improve the economy system, food security, educational system and much more, women participation in science needs to be supported.

Women’s participation in science alleviates poverty

poverty in africa
Image by Jim Richardson
“Participating in science enables women in developing countries to gain insights about how to resolve practical problems using best practice,” says Dr. Emily Ngubia, a neuroscientist at Charité hospital in Berlin.Poverty can be seen as the inability to afford human basic needs like health care, shelter, food, clean water, education and clothing. About one-fifth of the world’s population is afflicted by poverty, and statistics have shown that “women bear a disproportionate burden of world poverty”.According to the International Monetary fund, rural poverty accounts for 90 percent of poverty in sub-saharan Africa.

It has been argued that if women in developing countries like Africa are encouraged to take active part in science, the rate and statistics of poverty would be reduced.

There is a popular saying that if you educate a woman, you have educated a nation. Professor Tebello Nyokong, who won the Africa-Arab State 2009 L’Oréal-Unesco Award for Women in Science, once said that women “create a scientifically literate community since they bring up children and can encourage scientific thinking quite early in life”. Many women are responsible for raising children; their participation in science will serve as an encouragement to the children .

Recent research has shown that investment in women and their participation in science can offer economic growth. It will increase their financial independence and allow them to contribute more to the economic activities of their family and socio-economic development of the society.

According to Diana Powell, president of Goldman Sachs Foundation and
global head of Corporate Engagement, “90 percent of all revenues that women gain in their enterprises are reinvested into the society, into educating their children and into health care programs…..”

Studies have shown that in Africa, every extra year of girls education is likely to reduce infant mortality by 5 to 10 percent. Children whose mothers have received five years of primary education are 40 percent more likely to live beyond age 5. These multi-country data show educated mothers are about 50 percent more likely to immunise their children than uneducated mothers.

With a greater knowledge of science, women will be equipped with the capacity to think creatively through finding solutions to problems.

The late Dr. Waangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmental and political activist, as well as the first African woman to win the Nobel peace price demonstrated this. During her time as a parliamentarian, she was able to use her scientific knowledge by starting the Green Belt Movement in Kenya to find solutions to problems of land and water in her country.

In addition, women in science create more opportunities for other women to develop themselves and participate in science. There are a lot of organisations dedicated to empower women and train them to be leaders. Such organisations include the International centre for research on women, International Conference for Women Engineers and Scientists and Women for Women International.

“Science enables people, not only women, to use information smartly,” says Dr. Ngubia. “Women in science from developing countries, holds the key to economic development and empowerment of their communities.”